The Usonian Interviews, No. 13: Michael P. Branch on his new book, "On the Trail of the Jackalope"
An astonishing quest for the wild west's elusive mythical beast
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with author Michael P. Branch about his new book On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. The book is a travelogue-adventure about the hunt for the Wild West’s mythical horned rabbit, a quest that surprisingly reveals that the quest for a legendary creature has actually helped lead to the creation of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: So, for our readers back home who aren’t aware, what is a “jackalope?” How do you define the term?
MICHAEL P. BRANCH: The term originally comes from two teenage boys in rural Wyoming, just outside a town called Douglas. They were living on a homestead out there and taking an amateur taxidermy class through a correspondence course, through the mail. And they just got this wacky idea. They were hunters and they were practicing their rudimentary taxidermy skills, and they just had this crazy idea that they would stick the antlers of a deer on the head of a rabbit and make a hoax taxidermy mount and see if they could fool people with it. That’s the canonical origin story of the jackalope.
The term is a bit of a misnomer, which sounds like a combination of a jackrabbit and an antelope. Usually the hoax mounts are made with the head of a cottontail and deer antlers, which are more widely available. But what interested me in the book was in the American West, this kind of joke, the horned rabbit is iconic. You see this everywhere. What originally got me interested in the project was just how did this weird idea that these teenagers in rural Wyoming had—how did this end up spreading across the country and around the world? Because jackalope kitsch in the form of everything from postcards, to t-shirts, to oven mitts, to snow globes, is really popular and manifests globally as well. My emphasis originally was as a guy who’s interested in the nature-culture nexus, the American West, and humor—how did this weird joke essentially disseminate so widely?
TU: You call the jackalope a “weird joke.” Well, another funny joke was that the Wall Street Journal said you knew “as much about jackalopes as Einstein knew about physics.” What led you to jump down this rabbit hole?
MPB: I have published four or five books since I got interested in the jackalope… for twenty years, this has been simmering and I’m glad I finally turned to it.
I love that line in the Wall Street Journal because my previous favorite tagline for myself came from a review of one of my earlier books and it went, “If Thoreau lived in the desert and drank more whiskey, he’d write like this.” That always cracks me up. But this is my new favorite, because I love the idea that I chased horned rabbits and Einstein figured out how the universe works. But essentially, we’re the same, right?
TU: The book, it’s part-travelogue, history, a literature review (in terms of all the jackalope references), and it’s also a medical mystery. What was your strategy in trying to blend all those genres?
MPB: There can be a lot of resistance among publishers to this kind of multi-generic approach. They want to see a focus on one thing and an approach from one direction because it makes it more efficient for them to know how to market a book. But what interested me so much about this project was precisely that. It required such a diversity of approaches to tackle the topic. Because if I were to say, Okay, what the jackalope is really about is the history of taxidermy hoaxes. That would also be true if I said, it’s really about mythology and folklore, or how do oral narratives carry the stories of some strange creature forward? It’s definitely about [these subjects] as well. It’s also about the precursors and analogues of jackalopes. There are kinds of horned rabbits that appear in indigenous and colonial cultures from around the world. It’s about that too. Then there’s the fascinating story about how artists, from writers to visual artists, to filmmakers to musicians, have used the jackalope. I’m really interested in that popular culture stuff too. And then, there’s the whole part of the book that deals with actual horned rabbits in nature and how their study eventually led us to the development of the safest, most effective anti-cancer vaccine ever created. I needed a variety of generic approaches, because the phenomenon itself was so diverse that it had to be approached from a lot of different angles.
TU: The most astonishing part of the book is how you basically reveal that jackalopes are kind of real, in the sense that some rabbits suffer from a papillomavirus. And that’s in the same viral family as HPV, which causes these rabbits to grow these horn-like carcinomas. When did you find out about that phenomena, and how?
MPB: Most of that was revealed during my research; [at the beginning] I didn’t know that “horned” rabbits existed. But many of the connections that I outlined in the book, that the full story of the HPV vaccine can be traced back to the study of these diseased rabbits in the 1930s, is a story that had never been told. There was a lot of original research that went into it. I do a lot of popular science writing in my other work. I felt like this part of the story was in my wheelhouse.
Most of what you read in the medical mystery chapters was revealed through my own research and interviews over time, allowing me to connect all those dots. It’s a fascinating story and papillomaviruses are among the oldest and most prolific viruses on the planet. They pre-exist us as a species. Every mammal, literally, without exception, is stricken with papillomaviruses. But it was this specific papillomavirus, later called Shope papillomavirus, that strikes rabbits. It was the study of that papillomavirus that helped us to understand the causes of HPV cancers in human beings, the most prominent of which is cervical cancer—but there are many types of cancer, including oral cancers, that are caused by HPV. I wanted to use the fact that the jackalope is so silly and funny and interesting as a way in, but I had as a goal that I would also, in a non-polemical way, provide some education to people about the value of the HPV vaccine. There are literally millions of people who are being left unnecessarily exposed to a potentially lethal virus, when the HPV vaccine is proven safe and effective. We have plenty of vaccine polemics out there and they don’t work, so that’s not the kind of book this is, but I do hope that people will laugh and have fun but also leave the book understanding something really powerful about the life-saving power of the HPV vaccine.
TU: The other area where you really unveiled this whole other world is when you go into the sobering realities of the “jackalope-taxidermy industry.” Tell me about your experiences doing that—when you actually made your own jackalope mount.
MPB: I was wrapping up the first draft of the manuscript and suddenly it just dawned on me. I had traveled to Wyoming and South Dakota and interviewed jackalope taxidermists. I have a whole chapter called “Mounting Enthusiasm,” which is about weird taxidermy and the history of taxidermy hoaxes and how the jackalope fits in.
I’d done all my homework, but I’m not a hunter. The use of trophy taxidermy to memorialize killing makes no sense to me. So it just never crossed my mind that this is something I should try myself, but I realized well, I promised to look at this phenomenon from every angle and one angle that I haven’t taken yet is what it is like to actually make a jackalope, so I signed up for a jackalope-making workshop in San Francisco. And I went and spent all day with these hipsters in San Francisco making my own jackalope. What I discovered was a few things. First, there’s a lot more precision and craft that goes into this than I had ever imagined. Even after being in taxidermy studios and interviewing taxidermists, I really didn’t get how difficult this really was to do well, so I came out of the experience with a new admiration for the artistic aspects of taxidermy. Even though I have ethical qualms about many kinds of taxidermy, I really did come out seeing it as a sort of art form.
I loved that my journey had taken me from one pole to the other—from rural South Dakota and rural Wyoming to a really expensive jackalope-making workshop with hipsters in the Mission District of San Francisco. That really affirmed for me that everybody loves jackalopes no matter what.
But then the real takeaway for me from the workshop was—this is super gross! This is a visceral thing that we’re involved in. When I think about jackalopes, I often don’t think about the mounts. I think about the key chains and the t-shirts and the kids toys and just the proliferation of jackalope kitsch that is essentially funny and harmless. But to make the actual jackalope mount of course requires the life of an animal, and it is a really visceral and pretty disgusting hands-on process to make a jackalope. When I write about that in the final chapter of the book, which is called “The Jackalope Maker,” I do try to grapple with the ethics of what does it mean to kill an animal to create a joke, in effect.
TU: What was your favorite moment in doing this odyssey, this Conradian quest to the heart of the jackalope?
MPB: Unlike most of my previous books, this book depended heavily on interviews. In the medical history part of the book I interview virologists and oncologists and epidemiologists, medical history people, medical sociologists who specialize in vaccine resistance—the kinds of nerdy interviews you’d expect.
But in other parts of the book, I interviewed the guy with the world’s largest jackalope postcard collection and try to get inside his head. Why are people interested in this kitsch? In the first chapter, I visited Douglas, Wyoming, “the Home of the Jackalope,” and I interviewed people from oil-patch roughnecks, to miners and ranchers, to bartenders, to ultimately the mayor of the town trying to understand, what does the jackalope mean to this town?
I don’t want to give away the end of the book, but I’ll just say that, having made “Paxton,” this jackalope at the workshop in San Francisco and having done a terrible job on this thing, and put him into a cardboard box, I started to walk across the city and basically walk all the way across San Francisco with this homemade jackalope in the non-descript box under my arm and use that as a way to reflect on the whole journey.
The interviews were the most fun, but probably the most meaningful part of the whole exploration for me was walking across San Francisco with a jackalope under my arm. And thinking about just the regional, national, and global connections between the thing that was under my arm and horned rabbits in cultures around the world, it felt really meaningful to me.
TU: You mentioned before that you hope attention is brought to importance of the HPV vaccine. But what else do you hope readers take away from your book?
MPB: I want to emphasize the power of the imagination in our happiness, our survival, and our links to each other. I love that the jackalope is both real in the sense that horned rabbits exist and have been a fascination for naturalists for centuries. And also that they don’t exist—that we basically invented them to make each other laugh. The book ultimately is a real assertion of the power of the imagination.
I am not a writer who feels that entertaining your reader is somehow pandering or condescending. I want my reader to be entertained. I’d like them to take away from this that when you create stuff that’s fun, and you share it with other people, it can become really resonant. That kind of humor can provide a kind of relief that I think ultimately is a kind of tool of survival.
We’re living in a very difficult time. I didn’t want to set out to write a vaccine polemic. I wanted to set out to say, Hey, have you ever wondered about this weird thing that you saw in a gift shop or a pool hall or a bar? Well, it has layers and layers of narrative behind it. Come with me on this weird journey. You’re going to learn some stuff that seems unimaginable.
TU: I have the sneaking suspicion that you’re going to be the “jackalope guy” from now on. How do you feel about that?
MPB: Well, I’m used to it actually, but you’re right that it’s about to get more intense. This has been happening to me for the last year and a half or two. I routinely get emails from people I don’t know all over the world, who say, Hey, I hear you’re the jackalope guy. You know I live in this little town in Sweden, in Bavaria, or in Mexico. And I wondered if you knew about our horned rabbit which is called the such-and-such. And when it comes to the American jackalope, everybody wants to tell me a story. Oh, I remember when I was a kid, my grandpa used to take me into the VFW hall. They had a jackalope mount. And I was 15 before I figured out that all the guys had been teasing me the whole time.
Being the jackalope guy has actually been kind of cool. I suppose it is a little bit like typecasting in acting; I don’t ultimately want people to think this is the only thing I do. But the boon of being the jackalope guy, is that people find you with their weird stories, and it’s immensely entertaining. It was not only helpful in writing the book, but it’s just fun. I hear from musicians and artists and filmmakers who say, Hey, did you know I wrote this song about a jackalope? Hey, here’s an image of the sculpture of a jackalope that I made.
People want to share their stories and I hope the book will facilitate that. If that means I’m the jackalope guy, I’m perfectly fine with that. I mean, actually I’m the Einstein of jackalopes, if we really want to be more precise.
Michael P. Branch is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches creative nonfiction, American literature, environmental studies, and film studies. An award-winning writer and humorist, Michael is the author of How to Cuss in Western and lives with his wife and two daughters in the western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range.